Shabbat Parashat Devarim
July 21, 2023 – 3 Av 5783
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. – Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:1
The Gra(1) parsed the opening words of this passage giving particular emphasis to the middle phrase.
“These are the words that Moses addressed to”, the central and essential element that Moshe urged upon the people was that they be “all Israel”, that unity pervade the community, that they be one people, a whole nation.
I was struck by the Gra’s interpretation of Moshe’s words to the Israelites as being an admonition to preserve communal unity in the future given the Gra’s ardent and vociferous attacks against the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the nascent Hasidic movement. Was the Gra articulating his own hope that the Jewish community of his own era would find a commonality of purpose and connection to each other even as it was experiencing tremendous communal controversy.
The Gra, would also have been aware of Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786) the German-Jewish philosopher and his responses to Jewish Emancipation in Europe beginning in the latter part of the 18th century. Mendelssohn’s writings regarding Jewish life would give rise to the Haskalah, the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as explorations of what Judaism would like in this new reality.
Given the growing diversity in Jewish life and divisions developing in its wake it is not surprising that the Gra would see in Moshe’s speaking to “all Israel” an ideal to be wished for, sought after, and pursued by all factions within the Jewish people. This remains the enduring challenge of modernity in the Jewish world; a Jewish world far more diverse and divided than in the days of the Gra.
The nascent Zionist movement reflected both the spectrum of the Jewish world with labor Zionists, cultural Zionists, and religious Zionists, to name only a few elements, seeking to create a Jewish state. This effort, especially after the emergence of the State of Israel, was a unifying and galvanizing force in the Jewish world. Today, unfortunately, Israel, and by extension world Jewry, are experiencing centrifugal forces pushing us apart from each other and moving us away from a unity of purpose essential to Jewish survival.
Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog, reflecting upon the current turmoil in Israel, affirmed it as a sign of the robust democratic nature of Israeli society, “I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA… as a nation, we must find the way to talk to each other no matter how long it takes. As head of state, I will continue doing everything to reach a broad public consensus…” President Herzog also emphasized the need to fulfill the greeting “Shalom”, to foster peace and promote wholeness, both in Israel and the global Jewish community.(2)
Shabbat Shalom –
Rabbi David M. Eligberg
1 Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720–1797) known by the acronym Gra, was born into a rabbinical and scholarly family. At 18, Eliyahu travelled extensively through Poland and Germany visiting many Jewish communities. The Gaon of Vilna was the central cultural figure of Lithuanian Jewry and was revered as a spiritual giant, role model and source of inspiration.
Rabbi Eliyahu held no official office but was widely recognized for his scholarship which encompassed all aspects of rabbinic literature, halachic, aggadic, and kabbalistic earning him the title of Gaon.
The Gaon of Vilna was adamant in his opposition to the nascent Hasidic movement seeing it as a continuation of the Sabbatian heresy and the wrenching struggle with their spiritual heirs the Frankists in the 1750s.
2 The Rabbinical Assembly and The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism released this statement following President Herzog’s presentation before Congress.
RA & USCJ applaud Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of the US Congress – NEW YORK, NEW YORK (July 19, 2023)
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, and of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, issued the following statement on Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to the US Congress, which he attended:
“The Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ applaud Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of the United States Congress. As President Herzog quoted from our movement’s great teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘To be is to stand up for.’ We commend President Herzog for demonstrating his commitment to our shared Jewish and democratic values. As his speech duly noted, human rights, civil liberties, the protection of minorities, and an independent judiciary are cherished values present in Jewish scripture and within our respective nations’ declarations of independence.
“The timing of President Herzog’s speech coincides with Israel’s 75th anniversary and the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, traditionally a period of mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people. After 2000 years of exile and hardship, the State of Israel has prospered, making the desert bloom and becoming the ‘start-up nation.’ The United States’ and Israel’s joint efforts through the Abraham Accords to promote peace, cooperation, and stability in the Middle East are a welcome development. As are efforts ongoing to confront regional threats emanating from Iran.
“The relationship and shared democratic ideals between the U.S. and Israel supersedes individual administrations and policies.
“As President Herzog highlighted in his speech, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is the quotation from Leviticus, ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ The founders of the United States and Israel believed in the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Freedom. They also were not under the impression that the maintenance of a free society is easy. Defending our fundamental values, institutions, and rights requires vigilance and courage.
We are grateful for President Herzog’s efforts to bring Israeli society together, to preserve Israel’s independent judiciary, and to defend the Jewish and democratic character of the Jewish homeland.”
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